Henry goal caps dream return to Arsenal
Arsenal 1 Leeds 0: His statue outside the Emirates is very nice and all that, but when it comes to honouring Thierry Henry at Arsenal there really is no substitute for the real thing.
The real thing is four years older than when he left, bearded, a little thicker set and no longer possessed of a reputation that induced mild panic in opposing defenders in the pre-match warm-up. He is not the Henry of Arsenal's salad days of the previous decade but with the ball at his feet and the goalkeeper to beat there are few better.
His winning goal as a substitute last night in the FA Cup third round was the kind of moment that will rank among the happiest memories many Arsenal fans will take from a season that had brought some crushing lows. For a while last night they were simply lost in the moment, the moment that even Arsene Wenger said was "a little bit like a dream".
Let's be honest: Henry is a born exhibitionist. He is a man who loves being centre of attention even more than he loves being centre-forward. But it would take a flinty heart, or a loyalty to Tottenham Hotspur, not to be exhilarated by the goal he scored with 13 minutes remaining and subsequently celebrated like a maniac including a full-on man-hug for Wenger himself.
Somehow, you could not imagine Paul Scholes reacting in the same way had he done the same for Manchester United on Sunday, but then Henry has always thrived on the love-in he has with the Arsenal fans. He pointed at the ground beneath his feet as if to indicate that this was where he belonged and it seemed inappropriate in the circumstances to point out that it was he who had buggered off to Barcelona in 2007.
Last night, none of this mattered for the Arsenal support. Henry was back and for an evening at least they could forget the club's hesitance in the summer transfer market, the 8-2 hammering at Old Trafford, Tottenham's ascendancy, Wenger's blind-spots and the nagging fear that they are being slowly edged out the elite of English football.
This was Henry's 227th goal for Arsenal last night – one touch to kill the ball with his right foot, another to sweep it past Andy Lonergan – and the home crowd were transported back to another time, and another stadium, when they reigned supreme. Who cares that it was against the eighth-placed club in the Championship when it felt this good?
When they do finally come back down to earth, there will also be the realisation that – as with Scholes' return to United – it will take more than just the occasional vintage Henry moment to solve all the problems in this Arsenal team. Until Henry and Theo Walcott were introduced to the game, Arsenal were contemplating a second Elland Road FA Cup third round replay in consecutive years.
In the absence of the rested Robin Van Persie, Marouane Chamakh was his usual ineffective self. He is off on African Nations duty today with Morocco and although he makes up the numbers for Arsenal it is hard to say he will be missed. On the bench, the lesser-spotted August signing Ju-young Park was predictably overlooked. Is Wenger really going to rely on a 34-year-old to see him through the lean days of the next six and a half weeks?
Asked whether he could play Van Persie and Henry in the same team, Wenger pointed out that he had once done that as a matter of course. But things are different now that the boy has become a man. "He [Henry] could play behind, in front of Robin, or on the flank," mused Wenger. "Robin can play on the flank ..."
With respect, those words are likely to send a chill down Van Persie's spine. "The flank" is where Arsenal's strikers have been banished when they have not proven good enough to fill Henry's shoes. Walcott has been begging for two years to be called in from the wing but the centre is where Van Persie plays now. And it is in the centre that he will wish to continue.
The first half was so bad that when the cameras picked out the injured Jack Wilshere in the crowd towards half-time he was yawning. The lack of quality was summed up by Chamakh missing the target with an open goal from four yards out. He was offside, but in the circumstances that did not even matter. It epitomised the laboured efforts off Arsenal's perpetually disappointing centre-forward.
Wenger made five changes to the team that lost to Fulham a week earlier last night with the likes of Sebastien Squillaci, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Ignasi Miquel coming into the team. Leeds did not help matters by sitting back with five in midfield and inviting Arsenal to find a way through. The away team had a chance on 24 minutes. Mika Varyrynen did well to retrieve a free-kick that Arsenal only half-cleared and Luciano Becchio had a sight of goal. He blazed it over.
Wenger lost Francis Coquelin to a hamstring injury on the half hour. The best of their attacking work came from Andrei Arshavin and Aaron Ramsey. In Andros Townsend, Leeds, had one player at least who looked a genuine threat to Arsenal when he got the ball in wide positions. The Spurs loanee had special dispensation from his parent club to play last night.
The start of the second half was a barrage of Arsenal chances with Oxlade-Chamberlain looking increasingly dangerous until finally things got desperate and Wenger sent on Henry and Walcott in place of Chamakh and the teenage winger.
It was Song who made Henry's goal with an incisive right foot pass that the old master needed just one touch to control and another to slip past Lonergan. He did not just score. Minutes later Henry was so excited he sprinted 40 yards to cover for Arshavin who had wandered out of position. It truly was a remarkable night.
It would have been a dreadful shame for the sheer drama of the occasion if Arsenal had messed it up from there. They did need a good save from Wojciech Szczesny from the substitute Mikael Forssell in the late stages to preserve their victory and a place in the next round against Aston Villa. But given the circumstances, you could hardly begrudge them it.
Arsenal: SZCZESNY, COQUELIN, SQUILLACI, KOSCIELNY, MIQUEL, ARTETA, SONG, OXLADE-CHAMBERLAIN, RAMSEY, ARSHAVIN, CHAMAKH
Leeds: LONERGAN, O'DEA, LEES, WHITE, PUGH, THOMPSON, CLAYTON, VAYRYNEN, TOWNSEND, BECCHIO, NUNEZ
Goals: Henry, 78
Substitutes: Arsenal Yennaris (Coquelin, 33), Walcott (Oxlade-Chamberlain, 68), Henry (Chamakh, 68). Leeds United Brown(Vayrynen, 60), McCormack (Becchio, 74), Forssell (Nunez, 81)
Booked: Arsenal Arshavin Leeds United O'Dea, Townsend.
Man of the match Oxlade-Chamberlain Match rating 8/10. Possession: Arsenal 63% Leeds United 37%.
Attempts on target: Arsenal 8 Leeds United 4.
Referee M Clattenburg (Co Durham). Att 59,615.